The trial of Jessie Dotson is in its second week. Dotson is the accused in the worst mass murder in modern Memphis history.
Defense attorneys are putting as much emphasis as possible on the gang background of Cecil Dotson, the defendant’s brother and one of the six people killed at the rental house on Lester Street – a house rented by Cecil Dotson for the last five months of his life.
What is emerging outside the strict boundaries of the case is a portrait of life in a house where the first items seen as visitors walked through the door were pictures of Dotson and other gang members flashing gang signs.
Cecil Dotson was a Gangster Disciple who worked as a maintenance man at an apartment complex.
He was a father, a son, an uncle and a brother locked in a volatile and violent relationship with a brother who had just been released from prison. But the relationship with others around him was also violent. Jurors in the case are hearing about the final weeks of a life that included guns, children, fear, community, anger and friends all in close proximity to each other.
When police became part of the narrative of his short life, their first instinct was to begin questioning his friends. They began with those in the dozen or so pictures on the wall.
This week in court, those friends and others have painted a complex portrait of gang life in our city that is both fearsome and boring.
The question is was the violence threaded through those lives because of gangs or would it have been the daily fact of life it was if none of them had ever flashed a gang sign.
Bored is what Willie Boyd Hill said he became with life in the Gangster Disciples. He told defense attorney Gerald Skahan he is no longer an active Gangster Disciple.
“I grew bored of the gang … I just stopped,” said Hill who also goes by the street name Frank Nitty.
On the night of the murders, Hill saw Hollis Seals, another of those murdered on Lester Street, as Cecil Dotson waited downstairs. Dotson and Hill weren’t talking because of an incident the month before that was one in a string of run-ins the volatile Dotson was having not just with his equally volatile brother but with others.
Seals, like Jessie Dotson, had just gotten out of prison and Hill gave Seals a gun he had kept for Seals while he was in prison.
“Hollis Seals didn’t go nowhere without his gun,” Hill testified. “He always kept a gun on him, no matter what.”
By early the next morning, Hill was among those outside the house on Lester Street. And his first thought was that the killing had been a gang punishment for a Valentine’s day argument in which Cecil Dotson had called police on his friends and told them there was marijuana in an apartment where an argument with his girlfriend had grown into an argument involving four people.
Hill told a higher up in the gang named Cato of the drug bust and Cato took it up with someone above him in the gang with the street name Doc Holliday. The three along with a gang chief of security named Dread met at an apartment on Dwight Street about the violation of gang rules.
“Dread told me to write him up, which I didn’t and they said they were going to contact me,” Hill testified. But Hill denied that it meant Cecil Dotson would be killed.
“Let me just say, Dread and Doc and Cecil, all of them knew each other,” he said. “This was a close friend of theirs too. So, I don’t see them doing no bodily harm to him.” Hill said he had heard indirectly that Cecil Dotson had told the gang leaders he would not accept a gang write up and punishment.
Hill’s reaction was immediate when he drove up to the house on Lester St. and saw police and crime scene tape around it.
There is some disagreement on what order Hill said it in, but Hill acknowledged that outside the house on Lester his first instinct was to call Cato and say, “Who did this? You went too far. What the hell is going on? Did you have something to do with this? Where’s Doc? “ Hill said Cato denied it was a gang murder.
Police who worked the case and have also testified in the trial have also said the idea of an absolute gang code enforced ruthlessly and rigorously isn’t accurate even if it kept them busy with leads until Cecil Dotson’s nine-year old son came to and said his Uncle Jessie did it all.
Detective Sgt. Tony Mullins who worked the case also investigated the murder of Gangster Disciples leader Eric Brown before the Lester Street murders. The defense has made a lot of the woman Vernon Motley, convicted for the Brown murder, was dating who was a cousin to the Dotsons. The defense theory is that for killing a gang overseer for the city, the Gangster Disciples were out for blood.
But Mullins says Brown’s murder involved gang members without being about gangs.
“He (Motley) killed Eric Brown because Eric Brown has gotten his (Motley’s) ex girlfriend pregnant,” Mullins testified.
Hill also drew a distinction.
“Cecil wasn’t living no gang life when he died,” he testified. “I admit we had gang ties but as far as being involved in gang activity, going to meetings – we wasn’t involved in nothing like that.”
Skahan was openly skeptical noting that as a convicted felon, Hill had admitted to having a gun which is a violation of his probation. He said Hill wouldn’t be dumb enough to admit the gang was involved in the murders if he knew.
“Sir, I’d be just that dumb to tell you who did this,” Hill replied. “These weren’t just ordinary friends. This guy gave me a place to stay. I kept his kids. I fed his kids. He lent me money.”